4 Things Every Thriller Writer Can Learn From Charlotte’s Web

Detail from cover of Charlotte’s Web

Editor's Note:

Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. He joins Signature to discuss the four components of a successful thriller – all of which, incidentally, can be found in Charlotte’s Web. His latest book, Say Nothing, is now available.

I have a bet for you.

You take whatever book you want. It can be the reddest red-meat thriller ever devised, with one of those titles that sounds like it’s out of breath (Fast Hard). It can have a guy on the cover desperately sprinting somewhere (seriously: why does it seem like so many thriller protagonists are late for a bus?). It can have flap copy that hints of a radical terrorist plot, a species-threatening plague, or nuclear Armageddon – or, better yet, all three.

You take that book.

I’ll take Charlotte’s Web.

And I’ll bet my book – a children’s book with a girl’s name in the title and a lamb, a pig, a goose, and a spider on the cover – has a better thriller takeoff than your book.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go to the evidence. Because here’s how Charlotte’s Web begins:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.

“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

See? You’re already hooked. And here’s why:

1. It doesn’t dilly dally.

Four paragraphs. Seventy-nine words. Three Tweets-worth of characters (something E.B. White surely considered in 1952). Yet that’s all we need. White doesn’t take the time to explain that Mrs. Arable suffered four miscarriages before she had Fern, or that Fern was feeling insecure about her inability to master multiplication tables at school. The characters have simply been set into action, with just enough information that we can appreciate what’s happening.

2. You care about the characters.

Let’s look at the two figures who are pretty clearly going to dominate the drama. One is the ultimate underdog: the runt, very small and weak. The other is an eight-year-old girl named after a plant. Both are sympathetic, obviously flawed. And you inherently want to root for them. It doesn’t matter if you come to the book as an unapologetic carnivore who has no particular moral qualms about a farmer doing what a farmer needs to do. In this book there is no Team Bacon.

3. The stakes are clear.

You know this is going to be a story where a little girl attempts to save a pig from the burdens of becoming scrapple. Especially in this modern era – where attention spans have become so short – readers want to know this kind of information immediately. If it’s a mystery, what murder are we solving? If it’s a romance, who’s getting together? Readers have a lot more patience for character development, scene setting, and world building after they know what the book is basically about.

4. The odds are stacked against the protagonist.

The ink on the death sentence is already dry. It sucks for the pig, but for the reader, it’s exhilarating. Especially during the first half to two-thirds of the book, you have to put as many obstacles in your protagonist’s way as possible. Have readers thinking, Okay, how the heck is she going to work her way out of this mess? In the back of their head, they know the protagonist is going to win … somehow. But they have no idea how. That’s what keeps them turning pages. And that’s why – fifty million copies sold later – my book wins.